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'50 heroes saw another U.S. World Cup upset
For old teammates Frank Borghi, Harry Keough and Walter Bahr, America's stunning advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup brought back memories of another great U.S. soccer victory 52 years ago.
Borghi was the goalie and Keough and Bahr were backs on the U.S. team that stunned England 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup tournament. Each of them watched early Monday morning as another U.S. team scored another upset, defeating Mexico 2-0.
"Ours was a bigger upset, but this is a bigger victory," Keough said.
Bahr recalled the stunner against England as a great victory for the United States. "But it was not of the same magnitude of this morning's victory," he said.
For a long time, it had to do.
Over a half-century ago, a team of American amateurs and semipros being paid $100 a game was given little chance against an English team that was among the game's elite and whose player viewed themselves as the Lords of Soccer.
England had defeated the Americans 1-0 in an exhibition one week before the World Cup and Sir Stanley Rous, later president of FIFA, stood up at a post-game dinner and apologized for his team scoring just one goal. "You will meet the real England in Brazil," he proclaimed.
The Americans knew they faced a daunting task once they reached Brazil, site of the World Cup. In their first game, they lost to Spain 3-1. Next was England.
"We didn't feel we needed to beat them, but we felt if we could just play pretty good, it would be enough," Keough said. "In our minds, if we lost 2-0, we'd feel pretty good about ourselves."
Bahr would go on to be the longtime soccer coach at Penn State and produce two sons, Matt and Chris, who were NFL placekickers. On that day against England, he said, the Americans knew what they were up against.
"Realistically, we didn't think we could win," he said. "But from a competitive standpoint, anytime you go on the field something can happen and you can win. It starts 0-0."
And it stayed 0-0 until the 37th minute when Larry Gaetjens scored for the Americans on an assist by Bahr.
"I don't think any of us thought that would be the only goal scored that day," Keough said. "I thought we woke them up. Shots will rain down on us now."
In goal, Borghi shared that sentiment.
"I thought the roof would cave in on us," he said. "I felt sure they would score."
Certainly, England came after Borghi. On each attack, he made saves, often catching the ball, a favorite tactic for the Italian-born goaltender. Keough remembers him as the star of the game.
"I had quite a bit of shots," Borghi said. "I caught a lot out of the air. I had confidence in my hands."
In the 80th minute, with England pressing again, American Charlie Columbo tackled Stanley Mortensen just outside the penalty area. The two men tumbled into penalty territory, but Italian referee Generoso Dattilo whistled a foul outside and awarded a free kick to England.
Borghi set himself for the shot. As Billy Mullen's header got to the goal line, Borghi lunged to his right and deflected it away to Keough.
The English howled that the ball was over the line but Borghi insists it was not.
Now, it was a question of time. Borghi kept looking at the referee, wondering how much longer this game would last, how much longer he would have to protect the lead. "I kept thinking, 'C'mon, blow your whistle! Blow your whistle!"' he said.
When the end came, there was pandemonium. Borghi was carried off the field. It was a memory for a lifetime, one he is able to place in some perspective 52 years later.
"I'll never forget it," he said. "But if we had played them again the next day, they'd probably beat us 10-0."
England, crestfallen by the defeat, then lost to Spain 1-0 and was eliminated from the tournament. The United States fell to Chile 5-2 and also went home, but in a much different frame of mind after springing one of soccer's greatest upsets.